Hydration Systems – Yea or Nay?

70 oz. Camelbak Rogue

When I first started riding, one water bottle was enough to carry me through a 20+ mile ride.  Of course, at that time the temp was only in the 60’s. But once the temp hit high 80’s, with our lovely 80%+ humidity, it was time to not only carry a second water bottle, but to look for larger water solutions.

So, I purchase a 70 oz. Camelbak – specifically, the Camelbak Rogue. Light, plenty of water capacity, and it has two expanding, zippered pockets for lots of storage (extra tubes, CO2 cartridges, snacks, etc.). I loved this thing from the get-go. Here’s some of the benefits:

  • 70 oz. of water is like carrying 3 water bottles – without the bottles.  Or like carrying 5 bottles when you carry 2 in your cages.
  • Very light weight – the pack itself doesn’t weigh much at all.  The 70 oz. of of water and equipment you put in though, that’s different…
  • Very comfortable – adjustable straps and good design so there’s very little movement without any chaffing.
  • Two large zipper pockets for carrying extra tubes, CO2, snacks, etc.
  • The pack keeps the water very cool – if you put ice in it, it’ll stay frozen for a long time.
  • Easy to drink from – no worries on forgetting to drink because you have to break stride and grab a bottle.

So with so many advantages to carrying something like a Camelbak, why do I rarely see them used?Of the perhaps 25-30 riders that would most often do the Monday afternoon Team Superior rides, the most I counted was six using Camelbak-like water packs during the hottest weather. And by hot I mean 107° with 35% humidity, or an equivalent heat index of 122°.  The power-riders never wore them. At most, people had two water bottles and perhaps some small liquid gels in their saddle bags or jersey pockets. On the MS Ride, same thing – hundreds of riders, and only a few wearing packs.

At first I thought it was a cost issue, but that just doesn’t make sense.  Cycling is a sport that even done casually requires an investment. A decent bike alone costs more than all the gear of most other sports. Heck a decent pair of cycling shoes – not even a high-end pair – will run about $100, cycling shorts anywhere from $40-80, jerseys are just as expensive, and so on. So the cost is not an issue, since mine wasn’t even $40 at the time.

Comfort? I’ve heard a couple of riders say they’re not comfortable. I for one find mine extremely comfortable, but comfort is entirely subjective, so I can’t argue there. I’ve heard people say they don’t like carrying the extra weight. On long rides, I’d rather carry the weight than deal with finding places to tank up. Heck, on short, hot rides it’s still useful.

What I did find out is that road bikers tend to use them less than mountain bikers. That made perfect sense to me – if I were flying down a mountain side, I’d sure as hell not want to have to lean down to grab a water bottle. Also, a lot of road races don’t allow hydration packs of any kind, instead allowing only two water bottles and exchanges of bottles at food/water stations along the race route. This leads to top riders simply not using them because they either aren’t used to them, or they don’t want to become used to them.

I also found there’s an acclimation issue. It’s been a long time since I lived in hot temps mixed with high humidity. And I only started biking last May, so I was adjusting not only to the demands of cycling on my body, but the added demands of ridiculous heat and humidity as well. The riders out here have been doing this in some cases for years. So they’re used to the rigors and have learned to deal with less water. At least, I assume they’ve acclimated, because if I drank only one bottle of water in that kind of heat after 20 miles, I’d be comatose.

27 oz. Kleen Kanteen

Along those lines, I discovered another reason the top riders don’t appear to need as much water – they’ve most likely been drinking water consistently throughout the week. Studies have found that many people, unbeknownst to them, start out their workouts a little to very dehydrated. This is because most people don’t incorporate water into their daily diets. Or if they do, it’s just one to two glasses while sitting at a desk. Though you don’t need the old “8 glasses a day” to stay healthy on a normal basis, hard workouts change that requirement. If you do drink much more water throughout the day, your body won’t dehydrate nearly as quickly on the ride. NOTE: don’t try to tank-up right before the ride. The body has a maximum absorption rate that makes this useless – it’ll just make you look for any rest stop you can find. Personally, I’ve started carrying a Kleen Kanteen water bottle with me most of the day. When I’m not drinking my morning coffee or my lunch soda, I’ll drink down about 2 bottles between each meal. That isn’t the level most coaches recommend, but it should put me in far better position the next time I get out there.

So should you use a hydration system? Well, you might not look like the Pros while wearing one since they don’t, but hey, we don’t ride like the Pros either! If it’s above 75°, and you’re planning a ride that over 2 hours, I’d say it’s Camelbak time.  A ride longer than 4 hours with no support and I would bring the Camelbak and both water bottles. Drink early – drink often. I know, sounds like a boozer’s mantra, but works well on the ride.